Families often tell stories around the birth of a child. Today’s reading from Genesis is such a story, concerned with what led to the birth of Isaac, the son of an elderly couple named Abraham and Sarah. Isaac is the promised child of the covenant between God and Abraham. Thus this story forms part of the foundation of both Judaism and Christianity. It suggests an entire attitude to faith that can make a difference for us here and now.
The story begins at the middle of the day out in the desert. The heat is oppressive. Nothing moves. A very old man named Abraham sits dozing by the entrance of his tent, a good place for him to be during the noon time heat.
He looks up, and he sees three men in the distance. That they are traveling at this time of day makes Abraham wonder about their common sense. Yet he jumps to his feet, runs toward them, and bows so low that his beard drags in the dust.
This is the first time Abraham has run anywhere for many years, and he finds himself out of breath. But he catches his breath and finally addresses the threesome. In extravagantly humble language, he invites them out of the desert heat and into his encampment for a meal. His offer is accepted.
Abraham then ducks into his tent and quickly orders his wife Sarah to bake some cakes. We’re not talking about fussy little tea cakes here. He tells her to knead into dough three measures of flour, which is about 32 quarts. Do you know how much cake can be made with 32 quarts of flour? Can you imagine how hard it would be to knead a lump of dough that big? Abraham’s hospitality is getting out of hand!
Abraham then runs to the barnyard, leads a calf to one of his servants, and tells him to slaughter and prepare it. A great deal of meat will come from this one calf. No refrigeration is available for keeping the leftovers. This dinner for the three travelers will be a really big deal! What’s going on here?
Finally, the meal is fixed, and the three travelers start eating under the welcome shade of a tree. Abraham stands nearby, looking more like a headwaiter than a host. For a long time the travelers are silent. They must be enjoying their meal.
Then one of them asks Abraham a question. “Where is your wife Sarah?” With this, an awkward silence descends upon Abraham.
To us, the question sounds like polite social conversation. But according to desert hospitality, a guest must be given anything–or anyone–he asks for, no matter how rude the request. If he asks for your wife, you give him your wife. Even if your wife is Sarah, no longer quite the blushing bride she was seventy years before.
For a moment, Abraham doesn’t know what to say. Then the answer stumbles out, “There, in the tent.” What the traveler says next is not a demand, but a promise. “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.”
Now remember: both Abraham and Sarah are very old. And while this story takes place over three thousand years ago, they and their contemporaries know how babies are made and realize full well that women Sarah’s age are not candidates for motherhood.
Sarah’s not out front with Abraham and the three travelers–women don’t eat with men in this culture. She’s back in the tent, and she’s eavesdropping. When the one traveler talks about her getting pregnant, having a baby, she guffaws, she chortles, she has herself a belly laugh. This results in more social discomfort, for it’s not polite to laugh at your guests, even when they say the most outlandish things. Nevertheless, the promise of a son is reaffirmed
What happens later? Abraham and Sarah are by far the oldest couple in their childbirth class. They end up naming their son something that fits his unusual circumstances. They name him Isaac, which means “laughter.” Whose laughter is this–that of the baby, Abraham, Sarah, or even God himself? Maybe the answer in this case is “all of the above.”
So at the foundation of both Judaism and Christianity we have this story about hospitality. Abraham and Sarah welcome a trio of noon time travelers and become in their extreme old age the parents of a child God had promised them.
Abraham’s excessive humility, his extravagant generosity, the shock he feels when his wife is asked after, Sarah’s guffawing at the prospect of her geriatric pregnancy–all these make this story hilarious, a lighthearted proclamation favoring hospitality and the blessings it brings us from on high.
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The story could have happened otherwise, of course. Abraham, awakened from his snoozing, could have condemned the three travelers as weirdos, enemies, or worse, thrown them off his property, and sent them packing, with his private goon squad, armed to the teeth, chasing after them for good measure.
By doing so, he would have failed miserably at hospitality, to say nothing of faith. But he would have expressed an attitude very common among human beings during many periods and far from extinct in our time. One modern name for this attitude is Conventional Thinking.
Conventional Thinking takes place inside a closed space or box. This box is constructed of rigid rules and unquestionable assumptions which can be all the more powerful when they remain implicit or are simply “what everybody knows.” Life inside the box feels safe, and a person’s presence there is reinforced by the group of people that share this space, whether family, congregation, community, nation, or some other network.
Those inside the box peer at the outside world through a small window, and they don’t like what they see. They much prefer the uniformity of those who stay inside the box.
Hospitality is not an option, except possibly to let inside those who can be certified as sharing all the attitudes of those already there. To step outside and welcome the stranger simply as the stranger is–such hospitality is regarded as highly threatening and entirely unacceptable by those inside. These insiders choose to abandon the possibility of growth that comes with hospitality in order to enjoy the safety of the box’s four walls.
Conventional Thinking remains popular in both the Christian community and the larger society. It cannot be ignored, as it is a stage in the development of each person from childhood to genuine adulthood. What is regrettable is how people can become stuck in Conventional Thinking well into adulthood and how Conventional Thinking can dominate communities, institutions, and governments. At its foundation, our faith challenges and even threatens Conventional Thinking. Faith invites us to not remain fearful inside the box, to not reject the stranger, but to move beyond this stage. We have Abraham and Sarah as examples, the parents of our faith, who did not drive away three sun struck travelers, but offered them hospitality and received a most unlikely blessing.
Beyond Conventional Thinking comes another stage of development named, aptly enough, Post-Conventional Thinking.
This way of thinking is characterized by dialectic. According to David Cook, dialectic involves the ability “to enter into the thoughts of others and regard them as valid or at least potentially so.” [David Cook, “Some Thoughts on Cognitive Development and the State of the Church.” My discussion of Conventional and Pots-Conventional Thinking is adapted from this essay.] In other words, Post-Conventional Thinkers can pay serious attention to a perspective other than their own. They can leave the safety of their box and talk honestly with strangers. They can entertain the possibility that their own view is incomplete or incorrect. They can question whether their fear of others is valid. Like Sarah and Abraham, Post-Conventional Thinkers leave themselves open to the blessing announced by travelers, which may turn out to be something hilarious and a tremendous treasure.
From earliest times, our faith has faced the choice of Conventional or Post-Conventional Thinking, of Conventional or Post-Conventional Life. After all, the story of Abraham and Sarah could have happened otherwise.
The saints of the Old and New Testaments and above them all, Jesus, also faced this choice: whether to stay inside the box or venture out, whether to welcome or reject the stranger, whether to choose a protected existence or one characterized by risky faith.
The same choice confronts the Christian community today as well as our society and each one of us. We can confine ourselves to the conventional box. This is a popular option and one that for a time smells of success. Or we can venture out to welcome travelers who bring with them a blessing.
Abraham and Sarah, our parents in faith, chose this latter option. They welcomed the trio of travelers, three strangers out in the noon day sun. What they received for their troubles was hilarity and a tremendous treasure. For the blessing came as a covenant child born to this ancient couple.
But the hospitality of Sarah and Abraham involved even more than this. For long afterward the Christian faithful came to recognize the three who visited that desert camp as the Holy Trinity, the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Here we find the greatest tragedy that those who stay inside the box visit upon themselves: they miss the blessing, and they miss the appearance of the God who comes to bless them.
May we never make that mistake. Amen.
––Copyright for this sermon 2006, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.